This south Texas town of 7,500 people has long billed itself as “the spinach capital of the world,” erecting a statue of Popeye in front of City Hall.
But in recent months, as federal charges were brought against most top city officials, the local newspaper ran a cartoon showing the spinach-snacking sailor with the scales of justice in one hand; another cartoon showed his platform empty, replaced with a sign: “Help wanted.”
The lone councilman unscathed by the federal investigation is feeling vindicated.
"I started asking questions myself as a councilman and couldn’t get them answered,” Joel Barajas, 55, said this week as he sat near Popeye outside City Hall. “We sent letters to the secretary of state, the district attorney, county attorney.”
Politics in south Texas has been fueled for generations by oil, nepotism and patronage. But Crystal City was known for its activism: About 40 miles from the border, it was the birthplace of the Chicano activist party La Raza Unida and the site of a historic walkout by Latino students in 1969, the headlines chronicling the event still framed and yellowing in the one-room office of the Zavala County Sentinel.
But now it's the town with a former mayor, two current and two former council members facing criminal charges. And then there’s City Manager and City Attorney William James Jonas III.
Barajas wanted to know why Jonas, a San Antonio attorney, was also appointed the city attorney. Wasn’t that a conflict of interest?
He knew Jonas faced a $12,000 monthly child support bill that had landed him in jail when he failed to pay, but why was the tiny city paying him $216,000 annually, more than city managers in other towns of the same size?
Most puzzling of all, why was Jonas allowed to live in San Antonio but use addresses in town as his places of residence — first a rusty orange caboose parked in the middle of downtown, then a city-constructed mobile home in a field next to Crystal City High School?
It's unclear what role Barajas’ inquiries had, but an FBI agent later told him that they started investigating several years ago.
Before FBI agents could file charges, one of the councilmen, Marco Rodriguez, 36, was stopped Jan. 2 by a Border Patrol agent in the nearby town of Big Wells, charged with trying to smuggle three immigrants into the country.
About a week later, a grand jury indicted three of his fellow councilmen, the mayor and Jonas on conspiracy and bribery charges, alleging they steered tens of thousands of city business to contractors in exchange for thousands in kickbacks. Neither they or their attorneys returned calls this week.
Council positions are unpaid. According to the indictment, Jonas, 54, facilitated various no-bid contracts in exchange for his lucrative salary. Councilmen and brothers Roel and Rogelio “Roy” Mata were accused of accepting bribes in exchange for steering contracts, as was a former councilman, Gilbert Urrabazo, 45.
Mayor Ricardo Lopez, 40, allegedly accepted $6,000 from businessman Ngoc Tri Nguyen, 38 — also charged in the indictment — to buy a car in exchange for Jonas and other city officials allowing Nguyen to operate game rooms in town know as “8-liners,” notorious pseudo-casinos that have been repeatedly busted in south Texas for illegal payouts and money laundering.
If convicted, the officials face up to a decade in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs said the arrests "should serve as a powerful reminder that officials who abuse their authority will be held accountable.”
Initially, the officials seemed unfazed by the charges. They pleaded not guilty, and with trials pending, refused to resign. Urrabazo, who had left office last May, was campaigning for county commissioner.
The high emotions in town were captured on video at the Feb. 16 council meeting. At one point, the mayor stormed out as people shouted “Resign now,” then returned, was arrested and spent the night in jail. Lopez was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance.
As he was released, Lopez spoke out. “It was improper what happened. They threw in a couple of charges,” Lopez said of the federal sting. “I have respect for the law and I hope justice prevails.”
Lopez ultimately resigned, as did Roel Mata, 44. But Mata’s younger brother, Roy Mata, 43, the mayor pro tem, and Councilman Rodriguez are still serving.
Jonas was suspended without pay. In a publicity bio obtained by the San Antonio Express-News after his arrest, Jonas claimed he was a “witness to the failure of Chicano political movement” and blamed “machinations, corruption and influence that keeps poor communities poor and steeped in crime.”
More than 1,200 residents signed a petition to launch a recall of the officials, which the officials promptly challenged in court.
“To have almost the whole council charged is kind of mind-boggling,” said Maria Martinez, customer coordinator for the city’s utilities department, who was staffing the front desk at City Hall this week. “We’re weathering the storm.”
“We’re at a standstill,” said Donna Martinez, 38, a candidate for county tax assessor, who was campaigning in front of City Hall, where her sister briefly served as city manager.
Two of the councilmen charged — Roy Mata and Urrabazo — grew up here with her husband, and Martinez has talked to them about the charges.
“I don’t think all of it is true. Maybe some of it,” Martinez said. “We’ve had issues in Crystal City for a long time.”
The current City Council, though, tried to better the city, improving the streets and water service, she said.
Jonas and the council spruced up the hardscrabble downtown, adding gazebos, landscaping and a new Popeye statue. They also finished a popular public pool. But Barajas said the pool project was in the works for years, and he questioned the propriety of that contract, as well as the one for the downtown landscaping.
Soon after the FBI sting, city water started running black with debris — a particular affront in Crystal City, named for its clear artesian wells.
City staff said the sediment was the result of cleaning the water tower, and were quick to distribute bottled water. State inspectors ruled the water safe this week and the city lifted a boil water order. But residents had lost faith in local officials, with the exception of Barajas.
“Thank you Councilman Barajas for stepping up for the people in the council when the others didn't,” Eddie Martinez III wrote on a town Facebook page, where people have posted caricatures of the mayor and a photo of the Popeye statue under the banner “Prayers for Crystal City.”
Barajas was easily recognizable around town this week, with his thick mustache, tweed blazer and alligator cowboy boots, and got waves from those passing City Hall.
He runs his own fire extinguisher and sprinkler business, and recalled the time Jonas approached him about contracting to provide service for the city. He refused, he said, because it was a conflict of interest.
“I don’t know where they went wrong. They’re people just like me,” he said of his fellow councilmen. “But I tell you, I do love this town, and I won’t rip it off.”
Jesse Palomo, 41, also runs his own business making signs and painting. Last fall, Jonas paid him several hundred dollars to touch up the Popeye statue, a 10-minute job. Palomo was supposed to repaint the city water tower but recently backed out, concerned he wouldn’t get paid if more city officials were indicted.
Sitting in one of the new gazebos this week, he pointed to the rose bushes and mulch.
“It might have been just to pull the wool over our eyes,” he said of the improvements. “But it makes me think of all the politicians for the past 30 years who said there wasn’t money for these things. What were they doing? People tell me they’ve been doing it for a long time. These guys just got caught.”
As for the council, the next meeting is Friday.
Barajas plans to move for an immediate recall of the two remaining councilmen — Roy Mata and Marco Rodriguez. But he’s not hopeful. The pair are unlikely to vote for their own ouster. And if they don’t show, Barajas won’t even have the quorum required to call for a vote.